Friday, November 11, 2005

Are Male Feminists Necessary?

I have to say, I like Maureen Dowd.

She's received such a torrent of criticism in the past two weeks by feminist bloggers and academics (see Uma's post) that I'm not really sure I should get into this at all. But I do consider myself a "male feminist" -- though I am sure the jury is out as to whether I (or my feminism) is "necessary."

But here's what I like about Dowd's approach in Are Men Necessary?, beginning with the excerpt at the NYT Magazine, and continuing with her interview on NPR's Fresh Air this past Wednesday.

Her main goal, it seems to me, is to restart a national (even international) conversation about gender relations, careers, dating, and families that has kind of slipped away a little bit in the mainstream media in recent years. Many of the classic problems facing women balancing careers and families in the 1960s and 70s are still there. It used to be a manichean choice -- kids or career -- and while there's less 'tsk tsk' applied to working mothers these days, I gather from friends and colleagues who have kids that it's still quite hard to do as a practical matter.

We may not all agree on the answers to those problems, and we may never agree. (And that may be just fine: these days it seems to me important to respect individual choices on many matters, rather than to prescribe directives that everyone must adhere to, to be feminism-approved.) But whether or not we can actually solve anything, I think we still need to 'go there'.

So as far as encouraging frank discussion, Dowd succeeds. People may quibble with her questionable personal anecdotes (i.e., her own single status), her glamorous upper-crusty life ("gold-lamé gowns cut along the bias"), and some of her data. But if her point is to remind people that the work of feminism isn't over, are we really saying we disagree with that? And while Dowd is generally dismissive of third-wave feminism or postfeminism, her approach is different from classic, second-wave feminism in that it encourages us to address the problems in the context of today's social and economic realities, not some idealized socialist Herland. In that context, anecdotes about dating etiquette, shopping, and so on are in fact pretty relevant.

"The personal is not always political": people say that a lot nowadays, and I tend to agree (I came across it most recently in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, where it is part of Nafisi's compelling argument against the "politicization of everything" during and after the Iranian revolution). I don't find it useful in my day-to-day life to discuss personal choices -- such as friends who've decided to take a little time off for kids -- in terms of broad ideologies that few women or men can live up to. But I believe we need to continue to approach those choices (and relations between men and women in general), if not with rigid doctrines, at least with an interest in fairness and respect -- to always question whether or not we are doing it right, and whether it might not be possible to do some things better.

* * * * *
As for some of the particular issues. One comes up in Uma's post itself. Uma quotes the following sentence, and describes it as "cringe-inducing":

"Little did I realize that the feminist revolution would have the unexpected consequence of intensifying the confusion between the sexes, leaving women in a tangle of dependence and independence as they entered the 21st century."

But wait, what's cringe-inducing about that? Isn't the confusion Dowd talks about real? She's not saying that she likes the confusion, or that she prefers a condition of inequality. But what I think her article points to again and again are the many situations that come up where "equality" isn't a sufficient term to describe the complex ways in which men and women find themselves playing different social roles. Those different roles, like the male and female roles in the Tango, are not in themselves inequalities, though they might come to seem that way if we adhered to them too rigidly or used them as stereotypes or formulas.

And Katie Roiphe's critique in Slate has moments where I flat-out disagree:

One of the failures of the feminist movement in the first place was a reliance on easy aphorisms, and the schematic worldview that such aphorisms implied. The famous line, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" did not prove to be a constructive or realistic contribution to the feminist cause. Replacing one set of rigid gender stereotypes with another did not allow women the full range of their desires and ended up sabotaging the movement. Dowd herself criticizes the feminists of the 1970s for imagining a sea of identical, sexless women in navy blazers descending on the workplace. Though she appears to be arguing for a new, more rigorous feminism, she is guilty of precisely the same intellectual fault—starting with the catchy, meaningless title of her book, Are Men Necessary?, Dowd's aphorisms, amusing and pithy in the morning paper along with a cup of coffee, are precisely what the conversation about sexual politics does not need.

First of all, why not breakfast? Why can't the conversation about sexual politics start with some light bon mots over coffee? Why does it always have to be heavy-duty sociology and outraged polemical tomes? I would certainly agree that a book like Dowd's isn't sufficient by itself, but then, I'm not sure whether any one book could be.

Secondly, I don't see Dowd presenting her book as a "new, more rigorous feminism" at all. If anything, she seems to punching holes in the illusion that the original goals of feminism have in fact been achieved. And while she does offer many aphorisms along the way, I don't think she would suggest that any of them can stand, by themselves, for thorough analysis. Aphorisms work best as triggers to get people thinking, not as independent arguments. But isn't it Dowd's goal to get people thinking?


brimful said...

I think this post rather perfectly answered the question of your title- "Are Male Feminists Necessary?"

Um, yes- for writing exactly what you have here.

1:31 PM  
Amardeep said...


Hey, thanks! Glad you liked it...

I've been surprised by just how much hostility to Dowd has been circulating this past couple of weeks, from feminists as well as the usual right-wingers (who really, really hate Dowd).

2:31 PM said...

While it is a very interesting debate, I am not sure how relevant it is in the Indian context. Not just in India, even in the States but for a tiny minority, a working mum is not one who is a professional by choice, but there are definite economic reasons underlying her choices.

The Groton and Harvard grad who marries an investment banker and stays at home to look after the kids, has the luxury of making a certain choice and a certain alimony.

From a feminist perspective Maureen Dowd's issues are really as relevant as the issues facing white upper class women always were - the feminist movement in the west was kick started in the 70s by Friedan et al, by and for the exact same class, Maureen worries about. White and upper middles class. Will a white woman ever edit the NYT or will it always be a white man, is the gist of her argument. For the rest of us, men and women the issues she raises are of the same category of interest as Brangelina and Paris Hilton. Voyeuristic.

3:50 PM  
bitchphd said...

Yeah, I'm really uncomfortable with the attacks on Dowd too, and have said so in a couple of places. So many of them almost prove one of her points: women who complain about being unhappy in their love lives are letting down the cause, which suggests that "the cause" requires women not to care about their love lives. I think that the outrage whenever Dowd writes something like this is a kind of dowsing rod for internalised misogyny (which we all have, to some extent). The objections seem to boil down to "she's acting like the worst stereotype of women, she's acting so femmey and whiny!" I.e., they demonstrate a lot of anger and dislike of "femininity" in the name of defending women. It bothers me.

4:39 PM  
Kanya said...

Actually, the issue of class is a very important one as the previous post suggests. I would love to know how many readers think that 'feminism' and its concerns only belong to upper and middle-class people living in the Euro-American world. I love Maureen O'Dowd and thoroughly enjoyed her piece for all the reasons that Amardeep outlines. And I think there are issues of social legislation and social re-ordering that apply to all women as a category (do women still constitute a class of people?). After all, the suffragete movement was led largely by upper-class women, but they are not the only beneficiaries of its gains. Women all over the world gained the right to vote. Secondly, for those women who have to work for economic reasons, issues of social power and the social negotiations between men and women have an equal if not greater urgency, in and outside the home. It has always seemed wrong to me to compartmentalize these issues only by 'culture' even if culture, class, region, religion all go into our understanding of women's issues.

4:42 PM  
Ukiah said...

Breakfast is way to important

5:05 PM  
Shreeharsh said...

I have to say that I found Katie Roiphe's critique quite on-the-dot. If we accept that the issues you're talking about -- the "tangle of dependence and independence" that modern women finds themselves in -- are serious, then clearly writing a book called "Are men necessary" is not what I'd call serious (it doesn't have to be a PhD seminar but some seriousness, maybe?). Starting with breakfast is fine too but ultimately, these issues can't be thrashed out over breakfast (if indeed they can be thrashed out -- which I doubt very much). It depends on how one looks at Dowd's screwball-comedyesque epigrams -- as comedy or as a part of a serious discourse. Clearly Dowd herself, thinks of it as serious discourse. Which is why her article is a let-down. And which is why Roiphe's critique has a point.

6:49 PM  
Qalandar said...

I don't hate Dowd, but I do find her tiresome. And I find her uncritical reliance on questionable science (evolutionary psychology is one of her favorite tropes) quite dismaying: Dowd seems to have little concept that her acceptance of various things as "nature" contributes, in a society where people are brought up to "science"= "natural" = "good", to the delegitimation of feminism.

7:48 PM  
Qalandar said...

PS-- to answer the question in your title, male feminists are absolutely necessary. One of the reasons for the "backlash" Dowd refers to is clearly the fact that for far too many men feminism is just not "their" issue as long as the big picture issues of integration into the workforce, equality under the law, are taken care of. Many women also seem to feel this way (by way of anecdote, I have learned over the years that my dating prospects increase in direct proportion to how "normal" (i.e. non-feminist) I seem to women).

7:53 PM  
Qalandar said...

PPS-- to pick up on kanya's point (and I believe the Atlantic had an interesting piece on this issue a year or so ago) class intersects in interesting ways. Take the case of feminism and housework: it seems to me that in many cases, it's not that men accepted that cooking, cleaning, childcare were equally their tasks as their partners', but women became free to work outside the home-- and scramble to do a disproportionate share of the housework too. As the incomes of two-income families started rising (with women now integrated into the workforce) in affluent households isn't it the case that the housework has simply been "outsourced" in a way to immigrant workers from developing countries? My point is that this situation, while it has certainly changed for the better the material conditions of women vis-a-vis men (financial independence, etc.), has not led to as much of a change in thinking as might first appear (if a domestic worker from Sri Lanka or El Salvador does the housework so that neither the man nor the woman have to, in a sense the problem has been swept under the rug).

While Dowd irritates me even ordinarily, in her defense I must say that I was quite surprised by the reception of this piece-- in that many people sympathetic to feminism were blaming her for pointing out the inequalities that continue to bedevil society. No need to shoot the messenger...

8:02 PM  
Kanya said...

Qalandar, great post. Yes, we have swept most issues under the rug and some of us just keep doing our disproportionate share of work. I've heard this even from colleagues at research universities, that women's studies takes on most of the 'service' tasks on campus while everyone else swaggers around doing 'high theory.' Another kind of 'domesticated' labour being dumped on a particular group of people.
On a lighter note, what kinds of women are you dating Qalandar????? They would rather have you normal than feminist???? And they come from this planet I take it????!

8:56 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Doesn't Dowd use satire often? Wouldn't the title be at least somewhat satirical?

7:38 AM  
Kanya said...

Yes, I think that is exactly right, and I've said it somewhere else. Readers are missing Dowd's satirical tone and taking a lot of what she says literally.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous said...

Feminism is based on principles of reductionism and it can never optimise situation for women or society.

The backlash which happened against it in west is just the beginning. Now the backalsh has even spread to India with Save Indian Family(SIF) group initiating their campaigns in many cities in India.

When roots of feminism are getting challenged, then does not matter if one is male or female feminist.

12:19 PM  
Aditya Bidikar said...

Interesting post. I have posted both my reaction to this and some other points on my blog:

1:09 PM  
Kush Tandon said...

I enjoy Dowd quite a bit. She wrote articles about organ donors in her family and her mom - they were great articles.

In her own way, she makes one think.

I read the NYT article you are talking about and it made me think - she does'nt write critiques, thesis, treatises - she is more a catalyst.

3:30 AM  
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1:40 PM  
moe said...

I don't have a problem w/ Dowd's ruminations on what it is like to be a successful woman in these times vis a vis the whole relationship thing. What I object to are her political hit pieces on Dems where she either parrots the conservative line unthinking or invents her own stuff (the Gore criticisms during the 200 election were particularly egregious). She seems to think that if she criticizes both sides she will be seen as even handed. It's a fallacy and she's fallen for it, particularly as she is a commentator and not a garden variety reporter anymore. for that she deserves a round of condemnation.

9:35 AM  
NP-S said...

To many Indian perspectives, a lot of the article is either irrelevant or insignificant. Issues concerning women in India tend to be more serious---there is genuine discrimination they encounter in several areas to say the least.

In my experience, many endure biases in silence, a few shout out at anything they perceive as bias, and very very few genuinely care abt those in trouble. Of course, the categories are not mutally exclusive.

But all three exist in both Maureen's world and in whatever world-view we are in. It hardly matters where Maureen stands, since she has not offered any suggestions you need to evaluate. It is more important to place yourself right.

4:48 AM  

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